Sensory Overresponsivity...  (Sensory Defensiveness)

Each person with Sensory Overresponsivity (sensory defensiveness) develops his own set of behaviors. Usually combinations of sensory avoidance and sensory seeking behaviors. The following is a partial list of common symptoms to each of the sensory systems. These symptoms may differ from mild, moderate, and severe levels.

Types Of Sensory Overresponsivity (Sensory Defensiveness):

Tactile Overresponsivity (Tactile Defensiveness)

People with tactile defensiveness avoid letting others touch them, and may touch, grab, push others in an effort to control touching. They frequently resist hair washing and cutting, nail clipping, face washing. They may act like their life is being threatened when being bathed or dressed. Frequently irritated by clothing, waistbands, certain fabrics, labels, or new clothes.

They may avoid crowds and the unexpected touches that can occur. They may be agitated or even go into a flight/fight response when bumped by someone accidentally. They may be unnecessarily rough, bumping, crashing, and tackling on purpose as a way of seeking sensation. They may be very over responsive or very under responsive to pain. They often do not like to get their feet or hands dirty.

Oral Overresponsivity (Oral Defensiveness)

Some children dislike certain flavors, textures, or temperatures of food. May be under/or over sensitive to spicy foods. They may avoid putting any objects in their mouth, or may 'mouth' things, anything, constantly. They may intensely dislike tooth brushing, and may cry; "It hurts!"

Many children have had a variety of feeding problems since infancy. They may gag, overstuff, and choke. These are the children who will ‘eat anything’… or will only eat very few foods.

Gravitational Insecurity

An irrational fear of change in position or movement. These children are often fearful of having their feet leave the ground, or having their head tipped backward. They do not like swings, slides, or any movement that they are not firmly planted.

Some children do not want to learn how to swim, exhibiting the same insecurity when in water. Floating can be frightening for them.

Postural Insecurity

This is a fear and avoidance of certain movement activities due to poor postural mechanisms.

Visual Overresponsivity (Visual Defensiveness)

With this, children may be very oversensitive to light. They may avoid going outside on sunny days. Complain it hurts their eyes. They startle more easily and/or avert their eyes or seem to avoid eye contact. They may complain the TV is too bright. The lights in the house, too bright. Fluorescent lighting may agitate them.

Auditory Overresponsivity (Auditory Defensiveness)

Over sensitivity to certain sounds, or frequencies. They may be fearful, or irritable when subjected to certain sounds. They may cover their ears and cry. Vacuums, motors, sirens, water running, toilets flushing, volume on the TV... many different sounds can trigger a fearful, or aggressive response. Children may even make excessively loud sounds to try to block out the offensive sounds.

Olfactory Overresponsivity (Olfactory Defensiveness)

Certain smells may make a child agitated. Smells may be heightened and acute. May turn away from certain toys, foods, clothing, or people due to they way they smell. May literally throw up if subjected to smells that make them nauseous.

Okay! Now that we see that there is more to this sensory defensiveness than just the skin... let's talk about what we can do to help our kids overcome this.

Awareness: The single most important step, I believe, is becoming aware of the symptoms and behaviors associated with sensory defensiveness. Usually done with the assistance of a trained OT, who examines a thorough sensory history. Most of these behaviors have been attributed to something else, other than a negative reaction to sensation. Once we realize what are reactions, and not a deliberate plan of an obstinate, defiant child, we can get to work on helping them.

Sensory Diet: This concept is based on the idea that each child requires a certain amount of activity and sensation to be most alert, adaptable, skillful, and calm. By careful planning we can use sensory input to help a child feel safe and organized in thought and movement throughout the whole day.

We use special activities, geared to each child's particular needs, at intervals during the day. When a disruptive event is about to occur, we can present specific sensory input, which prepares the child, and prevents a defensive response. We use activities that are appealing and fun to the child, which are much more effective when the child is interested and especially when the child himself directs them.

Adult involvement and direction can be limited in that we can make activities available, set up the environment, and supervise for safety. We often play with our children, showing them different kinds of appropriate play that will help them.

An example:  Ms. Wilbarger suggested for one technique for Oral Defensiveness. Before each meal and tooth brushing... rub firmly and quickly on the roof of the mouth with your finger covered with a washcloth. Push down on the lower teeth, or have the child bite the washcloth to add some jaw muscle movement. This can be done several times a day. Doing this PRIOR to a meal or tooth brushing may help to prevent the defensive response. If your child has a problem with oral sensitivity, over/or under... ask your therapist to demonstrate this for you.

Also, ask your therapist to carefully list for you all the different identified sensitivities, and appropriate play or exercises to help. Each child has different needs.

SENSORY DEFENSIVENESS can be reduced and/or eliminated with the correct amount and types of activities to address it. As this is reduced, the behaviors that accompany it, will also be reduced. Keep in mind, therapy is maximized with family involvement.

Copyright © 2004 Michelle Morris. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:

Michelle Morris is the mother of six, and parent of a child with a Sensory Processing Disorder. She is whole heartedly dedicated to promoting awareness and advocacy for families with SPD children.  She has published over 30 articles supporting and educating parents about SPD.

Further Reading

Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues, Revised Edition

The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder (The Out-of-Sync Child Series)

Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

Sensory Processing Disorder Checklist - comprehensive SPD Checklist; signs and symptoms of tactile, auditory, olfactory and oral defensiveness, as well as proprioceptive and vestibular dysfunction.

Tactile Overresponsivity (Tactile Defensiveness) - A description, signs and symptoms, effects of, and ways to provide tactile stimulation that will help your child tolerate this type of input.

Oral Overresponsivity (Oral Defensiveness) - Want to know how to help your child with Oral Overresponsivity (oral defensiveness) tolerate dentist visits better? Then you don't want to miss these specific techniques!

Gravitational Insecurity - Does your child show signs of vestibular dysfunction and/or gravitational insecurity? Find out what it is, the importance of diagnosis, and how to treat it.

Creating A Home Sensory Diet - Are you confused about how to create a home sensory diet for your child who has a sensory processing disorder? Then check this article out for explanations and suggestions.

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